Review: Empowering Minority Students

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By Tonya Kowalski from Washburn University School of Law

Jim Cummins, Empowering Minority Students: A Framework for Intervention, 71 Harvard Educational Review 649 (2001) [Read fulltext at the Review’s website (160 KB PDF)]

Despite its age, Jim Cummins’s 1986 article remains timely in its call to reframe the debate about the so-called minority achievement gap. Efforts to close the gap have tended to locate the problem within students who are members of minority communities. For example, schools may focus resources on diagnosing learning disabilities and upon the student’s ability to adapt to the social norms of the dominant society. In reframing the problem, Cummins challenges educators to consider whether we are treating the symptoms rather than the underlying disease. His threefold framework for addressing the achievement gap asks us to address how we as communities, institutions, and educators inadvertently inhibit our students’ learning by projecting messages of inferiority and exclusion. He also proposes that building teacher-student relationships is likely the most important factor in signaling to students that they are empowered to succeed.

To provide some context, the article examines K-12 ESL instruction, comparing English-only systems with those where primary instruction took place in the student’s first language, with English truly introduced as a second language. Although the results may sound counterintuitive, students who were allowed to study in their first languages performed better in English over time than their English-only counterparts. Cummins theorizes that this gap-closing effect has to do with the messages that socially dominant institutions impart to their students about the validity of their diverse identities, enculturated learning styles, and worldviews. Students from minority cultures actually tend to succeed greatly even within the dominant system when they are a prized group. Cummins points to Finnish student’s struggles to succeed in Sweden versus their success in Australia. Members of the Finnish community tend to excel scholastically in Australia, where their identity is admired and valued by the dominant society, but to underperform in Sweden, where it has much lower status.

Although the article focuses on K-12 language instruction, the challenge to law schools remains the same. To the extent that we continue to experience an achievement gap overall between students from dominant and minority groups within society, what messages are we sending to them about their value within the system? It is not only the larger society that contributes to stereotype threat, but also the individual signals sent by educators in what they do-and do not-say in the classroom. Professor Cummins concludes that “any serious attempt to reverse underachievement must challenge both the devaluation of identity that these students have historically experienced and the societal power structure that perpetuates this pattern.” Although specific strategies are beyond the scope of Cummins’s article, his framework offers a good starting point for faculties wishing to discuss how to support students from non-dominant communities.

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